Battling multiple sclerosis? Make a baby.
That’s not an American Medical Association advisory but the strategy of a young couple coping as best they can in Fromm’s third novel. Maddy has a rule: Boyfriends must be 10 years older than her 22-year-old self. Troy fits, and she's comfortable with him, but then the rule goes out the window, along with the unfortunate Troy. Maddy’s job is rowing tourists on rafts down Wyoming rivers. At a party, she meets another boater her age, Dalton, and is overwhelmed. They're married at dawn on a riverbank, the perfect setting for outdoorsy people with a dash of hippie, and from the start, their goal is to make babies. Life doesn't cooperate: They lose their cheap housing in their beloved valley and eventually give up rafting. They move to a town in Oregon, where Dalt becomes a carpenter. It’s five years before Maddy conceives, and her pregnancy coincides with the diagnosis of MS. The birth of their son, Atty, goes off without a hitch, though it happens between chapters and is not described. In a novel that’s centered on the body, it’s perverse of Fromm to omit childbirth. Still crazy in love, Dalt and Maddy must decide whether to have another child. Maddy has reasonable objections, which the strong-willed Dalt discounts: They will beat the odds. Their daughter, Izzy, is born (again, offstage), but Maddy’s breast-feeding is interrupted by a violent tremor. Her condition deteriorates. She must use a wheelchair. Dalt throws himself into his work; at home, he hovers anxiously. At some point, he crosses the line from loving to uxorious. As Maddy says, “He cares about me. Too much. He always has.” She fluctuates between stoicism and self-pity; bottom line, a character who was dull and healthy becomes one who’s dull and disabled. The kids stay mostly at the margins.
It’s not easy to convey the reality of suffering while somehow transmuting it, and it’s no disgrace that Fromm should have fallen short.